Log in

No account? Create an account


Like a good hobo, this entry will ramble a little bit. First, let's start out with the word "slang." The Oxford English Dictionary offers pretty slim pickings as far as etymology goes. I'm better off recurring to H.L. Mencken's The American Language, which traces "slang" back to the verb sling, or perhaps to the French word for language, "langue" (pronounced like slang without the S). So, from what I can tell, no one really knows where the word slang comes from. What Mencken says that I like is that slang is "a kind of linguistic exuberance, an excess of word making energy."


Hobos had their slang, some of which is pretty familiar to us.

• Punk – for hobos, any young kid. In old English, punk meant prostitute, or a punch, or rotten wood. The hobo usage is obviously closer to what we associate with the word "punk" than anything the OED can offer.

• Banjo – a small portable frying pan.

• Barnacle – a person who sticks to one job a year or more. I'm a barnacle. I've been working where I'm working for ten years now. For us, part of the attraction of hoboing as a concept is what we perceive as its inherent freedom; but I'm sure that for many hobos, it boiled down to economic necessity, which doesn't preclude a beautiful afternoon, here or there, riding the steel rails.

• Bone polisher – a mean dog. I like that. I like to ride bikes, and my fear is equally divided between vehicles and dogs. Most dogs are just barkers, but you never really know until it's too late which ones are true "bone polishers."

• Bull – a railroad officer. Roger Miller, in a song called "The Best of All Possible Worlds," on the King of the Road album, sings, "Don't hit me, Mr. Railroad Bull!..."

• Cannonball – a fast train. Think of "Wabash Cannonball," a song done by Roy Acuff, Boxcar Willie, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and others. It has the line "Hear the lonesome hobo's call."

• Doggin' it – to travel by bus, especially Greyhound.

• Catch the Westbound – to die

• Jungle – An area near the railroad tracks where hobos camp and congregate. I remember, as a child, my dad showing me where the jungle used to be in West Branch, Michigan back in the 1930s. I always associate the memory, for reasons unknown to me, with the image of hobos heating up baked beans over a fire, right in the can.


It's understandable that beat writers like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs idealized hobos a little bit. In a way, hobos were beatniks avant la lettre. The way I see it, a difference is that hobos probably did it out of economic necessity, especially during the Great Depression, whereas beatniks rambled out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the Beaver Cleaver conformity of the 1950s.

I read Kerouac's On the Road first, but just as good, or even better, was Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory. He talks a lot about hoboing in that book. By the way, not only is Bound for Glory better than On the Road, it's also better than Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, perhaps because Woody Guthrie was a real Okie who experienced the dust bowl and the trek to California for himself.

I don't know what your experience is, but I don't often go back and re-read books for the simple reason that I don't want to alter the initial impression that the books made on me. I read Kerouac at 18 or 19, and I really don't think it would be the same book at all if I were to go back and read it now, at 44. However, I might go back and re-read Woody Guthrie's book. It was that good. I remember anecdotes from it (spending some time with a lonely lady, to whose house he had gone to ask for a little food. She fed him, and her husband had been away for an awful long time, and ... etc.). Also, Woody riding on the outisde of a freight car and just about freezing to death, but clinging to the car all through the frigid night.

Harry Partch was a composer and instrument builder who grew up in the Southwest, in Arizona and New Mexico. His parents had been missionaries in China, which explains how Partch could have grown up hearing songs in Mandarin, Spanish, English, and Indian languages. As a kid he learned to play several different instruments. Partch was into microtones – notes between one defined pitch and another. He did some hoboing, as did the boxer Jack Dempsey and even Jelly Roll Morton. Although I'm sure that Jelly would have preferred to travel in other ways. It was hard for him to keep his $100 dollar suits clean riding in a box car.

I'll report to you what I find out when I read You Can't Win, the autobiography of a famous hobo and thief, Jack Black.


Moondog composed a round, "Be a hobo." The lyric:

Be a hobo and go with me
from Hoboken to the sea.

On the John Wesley Harding album, Dylan includes "I Am a Lonesome Hobo."

I am a lonesome hobo
Without family or friends
Where another man's life might begin
That's exactly where mine ends
I have tried my hand at bribery
Blackmail and deceit
And I've served time for everything
'Cept begging on the street.

Well, once I was rather prosperous
There was nothing I did lack
I had fourteen-karat gold in my mouth
And silk upon my back
But I did not trust my brother
I carried him to blame
Which led me to my fatal doom
To wander off in shame.

Kind ladies and kind gentlemen
Soon I will be gone
But let me just warn you all
Before I do pass on:
Stay free from petty jealousies
Live by no man's code
And hold your judgment for yourself
Lest you wind up on his road.


And, by the way, the etymology of "hobo" is uncertain, some say it is from Hoboken, which was an Eastern terminus of many train lines back in the day. Others say it is a short form of "homeless body." Still others opt for an amalgam of Houston and Bowery, which is where the indigent congregated in the old days in New York City. Others think it came from "Ho, Beau!," a salutation.




Rum Dum Dandy Says...

I enjoyed reading this very much! Someday soon I will read it again, even if it does change my initial impression.
I love trivial knowledge. Someone once told me that I'm a wealth of worthless knowledge.I will add this to my mental treasure chest of trivia.
My grandmother used to tell me about hobos back in her day in Mancelona. Her house was next to the county garage, just a couple blocks down from "the tracks". She said that the hobos had a secret way of marking your house so that other hobos passing through would know that it was a friendly place to stop and get a meal. Apparently her house was marked, but we never knew how.

Re: Rum Dum Dandy Says...

I debated acknowledging my sources, but heck, this is a blog, not an academic paper... OK, it was mainly Wikipedia. But here's a link to symbols that hobos usesd:


By the way, one ad no my site says: "Isabella Fiore Hobos
Buy Isabella Fiore Hobo Bags. Savvy shoppers compare & then buy!" So I clicked the link. Jolly Roger, Rum Dum!! Those bags go for $475 to $600!!! Think what a hobo could do with that kinda dough!

Re: Rum Dum Dandy Says...

That's too funny because after reading your blog I googled "hobo means." and ended up at a sight that you were probably at. (See, you inspire me to seek more knowledge!)It had some of the same info anyways, and it had adds on the side for hobo bags starting around 475 dollars. I almost posted the same comment then. What hobo could afford those? haha! Great minds...
I do like that link in your comment, though. It actually shows the symbols instead of describing them. Thanx always!

Added unrelated comment...Don't you think "googled" should be accepted as a proper word by now? Not according to spell checker! It seems to think that I like goggling things.

May 2018



Powered by LiveJournal.com